Initially at least, NBA 2K17 feels a lot like NBA 2K16. Load up an exhibition game and you’ll still be greeted by virtual versions of Ernie Johnson, Shaq and Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith, who’ll once again alternate between analysis and the sort of bizarre in-jokes that make them seem like long-term drinking buddies. The game’s arenas are once again cauldrons of atmosphere filled with explosions of colour, the players continue to be some of the most lifelike depictions of professional athletes in sports videogames, and it’s once again smooth and a pleasure to play. Honestly, the only thing that really stuck out as new in the first few games was the trampoline basketball acrobatics show during halftime, but in some ways you can hardly blame developer Visual Concepts for taking an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it approach’ to last year’s excellent fundamentals.
The changes then are more subtle and only become apparent through extended play. The commentary, for example, has been much improved with the colour and play-by-play roster having swelled to 11 (including regular voices Kevin Harlan and Greg Anthony, complemented by newcomers Brent Berry, Steve Smith, Doris Burke and Chris Webber), and David Aldridge has been drafted in as the side-line reporter. These new commentary teams are divided geographically, a nice incentive for players to try out different teams and, in total, more than 400 hours of new commentary have been recorded. Overall, the work has paid off, and while NBA 2K17’s commentary can’t quite match Madden’s new weekly updates, it definitely adds to the game with a nice mix of in-depth analysis of player tendencies and last season’s performance, personal insight on topics like player routines and losing streaks, and player anecdotes. Whoever’s in the booth, 2K’s production really lets their personality come across and most commentary teams have genuine chemistry.
More generally, while there are few blatant changes, small improvements are everywhere. For example, Visual Concepts decided they were unhappy with last game’s arena audio and personally travelled to each arena in the NBA to record genuine crowd reactions, buzzer noises and the sound of the ball hitting the hardwood. Quite whether, without that video, anyone would have noticed that the sound of the ball hitting the floor differed from arena to arena is anyone’s guess, but it’s a perfect example of the obsessive attention to detail that fuels this series. Visually, sneaker addicts will no doubt appreciate the fact that the game’s extensive range of shoes has now been 3D scanned for maximum authenticity, and the US national team has returned complete with a face scan of ‘Coach K’ (Mike Krzyzewski) who will also guide you through the new 2KU tutorial mode. Fans will also be pleased to hear that improvements have been made to Steph Curry as Visual Concepts attempt to realistically reflect his almost superhuman shooting ability without breaking the game (simply put, people aren’t meant to be able to regularly rain down buckets from halfcourt, and Steph’s penchant for doing so has forced a reconsideration of what a bad shot actually is).
Personally though, it’s MyCareer that is the true selling point for an NBA 2K game, and here the improvements are massive, with a new story written and directed by rising star Aaron Covington (Creed) and co-starring Michael B. Jordan (Creed again, as well as Chronicle and Fruitvale Station). The star, of course, is you, and the addition of mobile face scanning should ensure that the in-game you is closer to the real-life you than ever before. For me, the system worked well, even if it didn’t quite know what to do with my beard (it rendered it as part of my skin and the in-game beard had to be layered on top of that), and that, in turn, seemed to do funny things to my mouth. Overall though, the resemblance was good, if not uncanny, and it was initially a strange feeling hearing an American accent emerge from what was recognisably my face.
Vitally, Covington understands that he’s creating scenes for a videogame and not a movie. This contrasts sharply with last year’s Livin’ da Dream, where Spike Lee’s two-hour CGI narrative played out in long chunks occasionally interrupted by the odd game of basketball that never felt like it mattered much compared to the tale of friendship, betrayal and tragedy that Lee was intent on telling. Now, while you’ll once again work your way up from high-school prodigy to NBA superstar, the focus is on your partnership with Justice Young (Michael B. Jordan) as you attempt to essentially become the Splash Brothers of the new generation. This year, the narrative unfolds through short regular cutscenes that play out as you go through a season, again a nice contrast from last year when you’d play a handful of games in a scripted season of high melodrama before the narrative ended and completely disappeared.
In 2K17, while things are once again scripted to a certain extent (your college season is limited to a handful of games either because Visual Concepts thought players would get bored of an entire college season or because anything more substantial would have required a full NCAA licence to do properly), once you’re in the NBA you feel more in control than ever before, negotiating endorsement deals, conducting conversation tree post-match interviews, and having virtual iMessage conversations with your mum, agent, coach and teammates.
It’s also a more realistic depiction of the life of a top NBA player than ever before as the day is now split into chunks, with activities assigned multiple-hour slots. Some of these such as games, team practice sessions and sponsor appearances are compulsory, but the rest is up to you, whether you want to hang out with teammates to boost your fanbase or hit the practice gym to work on your skills. If you just want to have fun, then feel free to just sim from game to game, but if you really want to be the best, you’ll be hitting the practice gym every chance you get and seeing its Gatorade-emblazoned flooring in your dreams. Vitally, these practice sessions are the only way to raise the cap on your player’s abilities, ensuring that those who achieve true greatness have really earnt it.
To some extent these practice sessions can feel like RPG-esque grinds, but it’s hard to complain too much when they’re optional, and the game does its best to keep things fresh with aimless shootarounds (where you can earn bonuses for things like completing five layups or shooting over the backboard) interrupted with games of 2 on 2, 3 on 3 or Boston defense from various positions on the court. More than anything though, the practice feels authentic, the hours spent shooting and defending in a virtually empty court reflecting the unseen toil the real stars of the NBA put in day after day.
Ultimately, MyCareer works because of its attention to detail and the effort put into making you feel part of its fictional world, the iMessage conversations filled with emojis, the virtual social media feed that reacts to your performances and team results, and the way the commentators discuss your evolving partnership with Justice Young.
Of course, despite the effort lavished upon it, NBA 2K17 has far more to entice the serious basketball fan than MyCareer, and those who truly want to feel in charge will head straight for MyGM. This is a complex simulation of the intricacies associated with leading an NBA team, and you’ll need to balance budgets, work out player trades, hire staff and try to maintain team spirit while working with and satisfying the requirements of the team owner. There’s also the option of playing this league with either default or player-created expansion teams, with a quick look at what’s already been lovingly created revealing strange NFL/NBA hybrids (the San Francisco 49ers basketball team anyone), franchises from the past (I’m clearly not the only one with a soft spot for the Seattle Sonics) and, most strangely of all, a Star Wars-themed team called Da Vaders. Rounding off the package are MyLeague, which allows groups of 1-30 human players to play together in a full player-controlled simulation of an NBA season; the Ultimate Team-esque MyTeam mode; NBA 2K Pro-Am for serious eSports competition; MyPark; Blacktop games of online streetball; and, last but not least, a USA Basketball mode for those bursting with national pride. All in all, it’s hard to think of anything else that a basketball fan could wish for.
Finally, a special mention must go to the game’s graphics, they are, once again, simply incredible and make NBA 2K17 one of the best-looking games on consoles. You’ll see sweat glisten, spotlights reflect in polished floorboards and huge crowds swell and surge in time with the ebb and flow of the game. What’s more, these virtual doppelgangers not only look like the real thing, they move like it too, with characteristic styles of dribbling, shooting, blocking and showing off all having been replicated perfectly. However, all this is about more than technical excellence, what’s really striking about 2K17 is how every player reacts emotionally to what happens on the court, with feeling conveyed through bouncing celebrations, friendly fistbumps or dejected downward stares. Written down, this sounds like a small thing, but in play it’s all important, making it easy to get sucked into the game’s reality where every point, every block, every turnover, every dunk, every layup, every block, every steal, every miss and every win truly matter. It’s this that truly raises the bar, transforming NBA 2K17 from a technically impressive sports simulation to a living, breathing recreation of the passion and excitement that define great sporting drama.
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360,
Release Date: 20th September 2016